Images of the reality effect
Anna Kleberg does not photograph reality – at least not the reality her images appear to depict. All this may seem hair-splitting, but when Kleberg aims her camera at car interiors, Legoland and other model worlds, she points at something that has already been filtered through several layers. Not that she aspires at revealing that which lies “beneath”; it is not the object itself that captures the artist’s interest, but rather the various levels of representation, as though her intention is to emphasize that it is in fact these layers that constitute reality.
This is not to say that Anna Kleberg is mainly interested in exposing the image as a construct. That controversy has already been settled. Fifty years ago, the French semiotic Roland Barthes claimed in the preface of the essay collection Mythologies that he wrote his observations as a means of challenging the “naturalness” often ascribed to representations of reality. The truth is, wrote Barthes, every rendition of reality is dictated by history.
It would take time before this discussion would have an effect on the understanding of photography. But ever since the postmodern controversy of the 1980s (where Barthes became a key figure), photography has been forced to back down from its position as portrayer of reality to a more negotiable role as interpreter. I believe that part of Anna Kleberg’s fascination for photography as a medium has to do with the fact that we (the artist included) continue to put much faith in this “interpreter”.
One could say that Anna Kleberg always attempts to visualise the “linguistic nature” of the medium, that she tries to have us see the image itself as much as what the image represents. She therefore focuses on worlds and environments with which her photographs can create a balancing act, an uncertainty with regard to what we are actually looking at. The uncertainty contrasts strongly with the image’s expected claims at being a transparent medium that depicts reality, thereby shifting the focus from Barthes’ “naturalness” to the image’s function as historical construct. Kleberg’s pictures are a reminder that we must always reflect on how we see. She uses the photographic image to surprise us, and to interfere with our perception. Because despite the fact that we are aware of the “linguistic nature” of the representations, we still see them as depictions of objects.
In some earlier suites Anna Kleberg worked with model worlds of Märklin train sets and Legoland. The photographs are obviously representations of representations, but what the models are in turn models of is harder to say. Toy models are not always based on existing originals. In the world of models, there is always a fine line between interpretation and construct. Models share several traits with photography. They are both “images” that urge us to translate what we see to real conditions. “A photograph of the Krupp Works or A.E.G. tells us next to nothing about these institutions”, Bertold Brecht once argued. But the photograph and the model possess a special kind of proximity to that which they depict, making it difficult for us to separate the “image” from the motif. Barthes, again, struggled his entire life with the question as to whether photography is as coded as all other forms of communication, or if it would still be incomprehensible without a code.
Pictures that appear to resemble that which they depict are normally called realistic. When Anna Kleberg photographs models, she forces us to reflect over what we mean by this term. To what extent does a photograph or model of a house resemble the house it portrays? In her pictures, Kleberg places two different representation codes on top of each other: photography’s capacity of conveying an aspect of the portrayed object is placed on top of the model’s capacity of saying something about the original through the use of scale, material, and location. Certain encounters take place painlessly, so to speak. At first, the existence of yet another “layer” of representation between reality and that which is depicted is hardly discernable. Other encounters grate all the more. Either there is something in the model itself that causes the photograph to look odd, or something in the photograph that makes the model look odd. In both cases, one starts to doubt whether the picture truly depicts reality.
Anna Kleberg uses the similarities and differences between models and photographs to show how their “realism” works, how they are based on various systems of codes in order to represent reality. It is common knowledge that different cultures represent reality in different ways, and that people of past cultures saw images that we would consider flat, without perspective and with faulty anatomy, as being “real”. But it would be a mistake to think that this would mean that we, in this day and age, have come closer to reality. On the contrary, according to the American philosopher Nelson Goodman, this just shows that realism is always a question of style: “That a picture looks like nature often means only that it looks the way nature is usually painted.“ What we have learned to accept as realistic, also looks realistic. A realistic picture’s connection to reality is always subordinate to the picture’s position in relation to other realistic images.
In order for a representation to appear realistic, it has to adhere to other systems that do this. The media researchers Richard Bolter and J.D. Grusin referred to this as “remediation”. If a (new) medium is to be deemed credible it must be reminiscent of other media doing so as well: “No medium, it seems, can now function independently and establish its own separate and purified space of cultural meaning.“ In other words, it is not about the relationship to reality, but rather to other media. We believe in the codes of representation, the manner in which they communicate, the “alphabet” the images use, as well as the “grammar” that determines how the units are combined. When Anna Kleberg photographs models, it is as though she is depicting these codes. But instead of simply focusing on the similarities between the various systems, she looks for states in which “remediation” does not work, thereby accentuating the function of the codes and the values they bear.
The models’ (potential) claims are somewhat different from those of photography. A model can be both a role model and a representation. This can, at times, be expressed in unpleasant ways. Deranged dictators see themselves as (role) models for an entire nation and are often also interested in models (representations) of their own empire. This duality is not unimportant: models are not only about describing, but also about controlling.
While looking at Anna Kleberg’s enlarged photographs of the landscapes and buildings of the toy train sets, one is struck by the richness in detail. The meticulousness in turn reminds us that the sense of longing and desire operates on several different levels. In relation to the model, the viewer is a giant, and the constructor a god. The photographer’s intrusive lens cancels out the scale relationships, mainly by transforming them into objects of the eye’s need for distancing and control. The intrusive aspects of the images elevate them to fetish-like objects, victims of an “object scopophilia” of sorts.
In Anna Kleberg’s pictures of scale models of houses from model train sets and Lego landscapes, reality appears in the form of a fetish, as objects that can be both grasped and controlled. There is an invocation built into the models. Because they can be combined in many different variations repeatedly, reality can, like the fetish, be charged with different meanings. The chaos of reality finally becomes editable. Here we discover an interesting common starting point for the model and the photograph. Contrary to what we know about their need for proximity to the portrayed object, both are actually based on a distancing to the object. This distancing allows for manipulation. In the models, reality can be arranged, in fact, the model’s world is always a result of a selection process. Models are about how we want our world to appear. Accordingly, they are also about what we (perhaps unconsciously) choose to reject, and about what we do not want to show.
The complex of problems with regard to the selection process become more apparent the more realistic the models become, and Anna Kleberg focuses attention on this aspect in her most recent works. Two park models constitute her point of departure here, World Park in Dubai and Madurodam in Holland. In World Park, the constructor has gathered together a number of buildings that are “significant” for different cultures, spanning from the Norwegian and English houses to the dwellings of Nomads. Once again we see the need for power and control: every culture has its distinctive characteristics, and these allow for classification. The park in Holland, on the other hand, presents only Dutch buildings. Some are architectural landmarks, while others are lesser known. Both park models were constructed in a relatively large scale, and much effort was put into the details.
With the park models, Anna Kleberg chose a different visual strategy to that of the toy models. These were photographed against a white background, and exposed directly as models. In this way, the photographs urged the viewer to reflect upon the double nature of the depiction and upon the model as an object. In the park model suite, the artist has instead chosen to focus on the models’ realistic claims. Here she has taken pains to have the photograph look as “real” as possible, which she achieves through camera angles and to a certain extent through digital editing.
Something strange occurs with these pictures. Although we are aware that they are constructs, it is still difficult not to see them as real. Such is the strength of the “style” of realism. It is difficult to fully penetrate. Roland Barthes used the term “reality effect”. It is not a question of believing in images/realistic renditions because they look realistic. Instead, it would be more accurate to say that images look realistic because we believe in them.
If Anna Kleberg used the photography in the train set pictures primarily to analyse the model’s relationship to reality and in this way also to say something about the photograph, then the opposite is true of the relationships in the pictures from World Park in Dubai and Madurodam in Holland. This in part has to do with the fact that the motifs in her recent suites are initially more difficult to expose as models. When the model’s “code” in the form of realism is more discernable, it becomes easier to see how the pictures relate to the representation system of the models. The photograph itself thereby becomes more transparent, more invisible.
The photographs of the park models communicate on several different levels; as individuals, and as units of a larger context. Each separate picture captures a situation where we cannot entirely believe in what we see, but cannot explain why. Some of the pictures offer more obvious clues than others. The foliage in one background is unusually large, and in another picture one can distinguish people who, as seen from the perspective of the houses, look enormous. But even where the picture is not as easily deciphered, one has the feeling that something is not right. Anna Kleberg skilfully manipulates the information in the pictures, causing us to constantly shift our focus from what we think we know about the picture (that it is a model), to how the picture was photographed.
When Walter Benjamin described the difference between the reproducible media such as film and photography on the one hand, and the old media such as painting on the other hand as comparable to the difference between surgery and magic. He argued in favour of the clinical reality based nature of the new media. “Magician and surgeon compare to painter and cameramen. The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web.” But as Anna Kleberg shows us, the “clinical” aspect of photography can indeed be about magic: of making the unreal believable. In this way, her photographs tell us something vital about the media in a general sense. Photographs are both unreliable and alluring, but are still based on our trust in them. We might not want to believe in the pictures themselves, but we readily choose to believe in the photograph.
Kleberg further complicates the issue by abstracting to an extent where the images in general are affected. Upon viewing the entire suite from Holland and Dubai one is struck by the fact how uniformly they are photographed. The individual photographs relate to the suite in the same way the elements in each picture relate to the picture composition as a whole, homogeneous and not overly detailed. No part of the picture is more or less “active” than any other, just as no picture is more central than the others in each respective suite. The images are neither grainy nor unfocused. Not even the light or the picture quality offers any deviating or detailed information. This results in a uniform mood. Each picture acts as a unit in a larger artwork, where they acquire almost abstract qualities.
Here the images no longer communicate as individuals, but rather as a group. The pictures in “The Dutch Model” look as though they could have come from an architect’s overview: the perspective is slightly from below, and the one corner juts out a little allowing us to see two facades at the same time. Furthermore, all the pictures are “bleached out” in similar way. Both of the suites are void of people, but on the whole, the pictures from Dubai speak a different language. They are all photographed frontally and are slightly more difficult to categorise with regard to genre.
The fact that it is so easy to categorise photographs in genres says something of how pictures function as a language. They are dictated by a grammar, so to speak, consisting of composition and light relationships rather that prepositions and the subjunctive. If the pictures in “The Dutch Model” look as though they come from an architect’s overview, they can easily be transformed to speaking another language by presenting them in colour. This information is clearly culturally determined, and leads us back to the assertion that realism is primarily a style, an effect.
But the effect is not without significance. The fact that photography so directly conveys the notion of the context to which it belongs, as well as how the world works and what it looks like, points to another parallel in the model world. Like the models, the photograph also conveys what the world should look like. When Anna Kleberg photographs models she presents a construed world, but reminds us that every photograph is a result of a selective process not unlike that which dictates the appearance of the model worlds. Barthes would have said that photography reuses the myths of what the world looks like. In this way, they reinforce them in the process.
One of the most persistent myths is that of the spontaneity of photography. In the latest model suites, her primary tool for getting to grips with this myth and its various ramifications is scale; the most elusive and perhaps also the most interesting aspect of these pictures. Most of the time, photographs and models show what they represent in a different scale. Model constructors are usually very intent on maintaining a consistency of scale among the various models. But Kleberg follows another idiom. Here it is the size of the pictures that should be identical, and their motifs ought preferably to fill the picture surface to the same degree. This results in the two storey houses in Rotterdam appearing approximately as large as the entrance to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.
An interplay arises between various conventions. When Anna Kleberg photographs her motifs so that they appear to be the real buildings, she bereaves the models of their internal reality effects. Had she, on the other hand, photographed several models in accordance with size in their place of location, the surrounding world would have become obvious, and the reality effect of the photograph would have been lost.
In other words, an irresolvable struggle arises here between photography and scale models. The capacity of one form of representation to convey realism precludes the other form of representation from doing so. But there is also a paradox to this struggle. We see the photographs of models as real only if they follow the conventions of photography and abandon the model’s compliance with scale. If instead we were to allow the models’ scale-based relationships to be reflected in the size of the pictures, the picture of Schiphol airport would be far larger than the picture of the two storey buildings in Rotterdam. The difference in size between the pictures would make the viewer more aware of the image itself as an object and this would occur at the expense of the depicted object.
The model park photographs present us with a subtle and effective commentary on how quickly we get used to different modes of description and take them for granted. Anna Kleberg reminds us that our view of reality is always more complicated than what it seems to be. Her pictures show that photography must follow its own conventions if it is to look realistic, even if this means that the image does not in fact look like what it portrays. But such is our impression of reality. It is constantly regulated and always follows different conventions: otherwise it would not be considered realistic.
Anna Kleberg does not photograph reality – she photographs notions of it. She makes us observant of codes and conventions without trying to show reality “as it is”. Instead, the focal point centres on the workings of photography, where the reality effect has become an ingredient to take into account, just as the light sensitivity of the lens or the speed of the film. Kleberg does not expose the reality effect, she depicts it.
Translation: Richard Griffith Carlsson
Roland Barthes Mythologies Vintage Classics 2000. In the essay “Myth today” in the same volume, Barthes expands the concept of “myth” to describe how the “natural” interpretations are always loaded with cultural and ideological baggage. The myth helps us to understand, and forces upon us an interpretation. It has, in other words, a dual function. Barthes writes “…it points out and it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us.” (quotation p. 117)
Quotation from Walter Benjamin’s “Liten fotografihistoria” (A Short History of Photography) in Bild och dialektik, Symposion 1991 (quotation p. 58)
In his final book, Det ljusa rummet (Camera Lucida), the question reappears whether photography could be free of codes (and thereby be understood by all), a notion which he himself challenges in texts such as “Rhetoric of the Image” and “The Photographic Message”. Det ljusa rummet (Camera Lucida) was reissued in Swedish by the Alfabeta publishing company, “Bildens retorik” (Rhetoric of the Image) appears in Tecken och tydning : till konsternas semiotik by Kurt Aspelin and Bengt A. Lundberg, 1976 and “The Photographic Message” can be found in Image, Music, Text Fontana Press, 1977
Nelson Goodman Languages of Art, Hackett Publishing Company, 1976 (quotation p. 39)
J David Bolter & Richard Grusin Remediation: Understanding New Media, MIT, 1999 (quotation p. 55)
Walter Benjamin, “Konstverket i reproduktionsåldern” (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction) in Bild och dialektik Symposion 1991 (quotation p. 78)